Coastal wind is a strong, consistent power source, and Michigan’s more than 3,000 miles of coast could provide double the electricity residents used from all sources in 2019.
That’s according to a recent report using data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that evaluated the energy potential of offshore winds across the United States. The report was produced by the Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group organizations that provide information on and work to improve the environment.
The wind off the shores of the Great Lakes could provide electricity for Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, the report said. New York was excluded from the Great Lakes region because its offshore energy potential comes from the Atlantic Ocean.
Of these states, Michigan has the most potential.
Offshore wind could generate three-quarters of the state’s predicted electricity use for 2050 with full electrification, according to the report.
Full electrification means switching the state to electric power entirely — from buildings to transportation to industry, said report co-author Hannah Read.
The next-closest Great Lakes state in 2050 coastal power generation potential is Wisconsin at 27%, according to the report.
This potential is technical potential, which means it’s the total energy generation possible from wind in that area. That doesn’t mean all that energy would necessarily be harvested, said Read, who is the Environment America Research & Policy Center’s Go Big on Offshore Wind program associate.
“We say technical potential specifically because it’s just that — it’s potential,” she said. “We’re not necessarily saying that we should develop all this offshore wind. We’re just saying this is what is there, and this is what we could be using.
“We also recognize that with technology improving and becoming even more efficient and powerful, the technical potential could increase in future years.”
Turbines that look like giant, three-pronged windmills that can stand on the lakebed or be floating and anchored to it would generate the power.
The benefit of offshore wind is that it’s strong and consistent, making it a reliable option that can generate more power than wind over land, the report said.
And there’s the benefit that it’s renewable energy.
“Instead of relying on dirty fossil fuels, you’re transitioning to use clean renewable energy that can power a much cleaner and healthier future for everybody,” Read said.
But there are hurdles. Depending on the lake, there can be limited usable areas, winter ice floes that could damage floating turbines and conflicting uses, she said.
Beyond technological barriers, two of the largest barriers are community and political acceptance of offshore wind projects because the Great Lakes are important to Michigan residents, said Dan Scripps, the chair of the Public Service Commission.
It’s important to discuss offshore wind development before projects are proposed because current laws for wind project permits might be insufficient, and offshore wind farms won’t be a good fit everywhere, Scripps said.
“There’s no silver bullet. There’s no perfect answer. It’s sort of balancing the tradeoffs that you see,” Scripps said.
“But I also think that if we’re thoughtful and are willing to have conversations around what are the right spots and what are the wrong spots for ecological or other reasons in advance, we can build a strategy, whether that’s Michigan or across the Great Lakes, that identifies places that might be more suitable,” he said.
Having a plan in place will provide a clearer path forward that builds on supporters of offshore wind, Scripps said.
But those struggles don’t mean offshore wind farms in the region are impossible.
The report said the Icebreaker Wind project in Ohio, set to be completed in 2023, is the only offshore wind project in the Great Lakes region. That partnership between the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. and Fred. Olsen Renewables will place a wind farm in Lake Erie 8 miles north of Cleveland, according to the corporation.
Dave Karpinski, the president of the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., said the company won’t build more wind farms because its Icebreaker project is meant to pave the way for others.
“Our vision is that, if this first project can develop, then that will open the door to a competitive market to really come in and let the competitive forces drive down costs and come up with the best solution,” Karpinski said.
Report coauthor Read said, “We know that offshore wind in the Great Lakes is poised to take off, it’s just a matter of states making those commitments and being confident enough in the potential.”